"Oooooh Aunt Risa’s kissing Mr. Jack!" Jason’s announcement had the same effect as a bucket of cold water being thrown over the kissing couple.
Except, Risa thought sourly, the splash from a bucket of water might not have echoed up the beach and drawn the attention of Jack’s entire family. She sprang back, which was a bad idea since the kiss had left her shaky and unbalanced. To add to the sudden awkwardness of the moment, she almost landed on her butt in the sand.
Jack helped steady her, his hands skimming her bare arms. "You okay?"
"Yeah." She cast a worried glance over her shoulder, hearing snatches of murmured conversation and seeing Jack’s mother barreling toward them.
"Better let me head her off," he suggested with a crooked grin. "Unless you specifically told anyone differently today, they all think you’re still engaged. If you’d been anyone else, they would have made polite conversation by asking about wedding plans earlier, but they refrained out of deference to my feelings…Angela told everyone I might be smitten with you."
"Yeah?" Her toes curled at the idea of big strong Jack smitten.
He brushed his hand over her cheek, his affectionate gaze needing no words. Then he went to deal with his mom, leaving her to deal with Natalie and Jason.
"Are you gonna marry Mr. Jack?" Jason asked. "That would be so cool! Could I be the ring-bearer? Mikey Baxter got to be the ring-bearer in his cousin’s wedding."
Risa fervently wished the Baxters would move to Alaska. "No, Jason, I—"
"Can we tell Mommy?" Natalie looked delighted to have something interesting to share with their returning mother.
Time for a quick subject change! "Speaking of your Mommy, we should head back, get your stuff packed up and change out of these sandy clothes before we pick her up." Risa figured the kids would sleep on the way to the airport, especially after the fun they’d had playing in the fresh air today. "Let’s go get Grace from Jack’s dad and tell everyone thank you for the nice time."
They managed to say all their goodbyes without too much clumsiness, and Risa tried not to acknowledge the sly smiles sent her way. Angela was the only one to speak her mind, whispering as she hugged Risa, "He’s been through too much bad–he deserves someone terrific like you."
The comment left Risa with conflicting feelings as she and Jack loaded the kids into the van. On the one hand, so much acceptance in one day left her grateful and touched. On the other, she wasn’t sure where a single kiss would lead. And underlying her emotions was a profound sadness that Jack should have endured heartbreak. Why did rotten things have to happen to people like Janine or Jack or Maggie? Life could be so unfair.
Then again, recalling today’s easy, sunlit laughter, topped off with that storybook kiss, she decided that sometimes life was pretty freaking spectacular.
When the elevator doors parted at the seventh floor, Risa and Jack exchanged hushed glances. Jason had fallen asleep mid-piggy-back ride, with Jack supporting the child with one hand so he didn’t slide off, and Grace was dozing in the baby sling across Jack’s wide, muscular chest. Risa carried an equally unconscious Natalie.
"It’s silly to load them back up twenty minutes from now," Jack whispered as they walked toward 7-H. "Why don’t I just stay at your place with them while you get their mom?"
It sounded like a perfect idea to Risa, but she wondered how Janine would feel about a stranger keeping her children. She unlocked the door, considering. "I—Janine!"
Her friend unfolded herself from the couch, turning off whatever she’d been watching on the television. "I missed you!" She cast Jack a speculative admiring glance before turning back to Risa. "They cancelled the last flight of the evening and notified passengers that they could catch an earlier one or wait until morning. I came back early and caught a cab. I take it you didn’t get the messages on your cell phone?"
Risa felt her face flaming. What kind of babysitter didn’t check her voice mail? "I—this evening was so…I had other things on my mind, but I hope you don’t think I’m terribly irresponsible. The kids—"
"Look in good hands to me," Janine said with a soft smile. "I missed them terribly."
Grace had already wakened to the sound of her mother’s voice and began an excited baby babble that stirred Jason.
"Mommy!" he squealed, no doubt damaging Jack’s hearing.
Jack slid the little boy down, then unfastened the sling as Jason told his mother what a fabulous week he’d had.
"We had pizza, and Jack showed me how to play this new racing game, and Aunt Risa helped me with my spelling words, and Natalie and I got to swim today, and Aunt Risa might be getting married to Mr. Jack."
Janine laughed, casting the adults an apologetic smile. "Kids make fanciful assumptions. Jason, honey, Aunt Risa is marrying Phillip—you remember him?"
Risa cleared her throat. "Um, actually…"
"You two have a lot to talk about," Jack said, looking torn between amusement and panic. "I’ll just show myself out. Ms. Griggs, it was lovely to have met you. You have three amazing children."
Risa glared in the direction of the door, which he closed behind him, stalling until she had to meet Janine’s gaze.
"So that’s the hunky neighbor, huh? He does live up to description."
Sitting down on the couch, a slowly waking Natalie cuddled against her, Risa invited, "Tell me all about your vacation!"
"It was wonderful and relaxing and you are the best friend in the world for sending me on it, but honestly, sipping mai-tais by the pool doesn’t actually make for the most entertaining anecdotes. I’m more interested in how Jason concluded you’ll be marrying Mr. Jack."
"I’m not really marrying him!"
Janine grinned broadly. "Any chance I can have him, then?"
Jack was on his way toward her apartment when Risa’s door suddenly opened, nearly giving him a heart attack. He quickly bent down, as if retrieving the morning paper.
She stopped in her tracks. "Oh. Hi. I was just coming over to see you."
Her words, the sweetly hesitant way she said them, washed over him like the bright warmth of a sunbeam. "Really? I was just…coming over to see you, too. I thought maybe you’d like to go out for breakfast or something." If the kiss on the beach yesterday was any indication of things to come, he voted strongly for ‘or something.’ He didn’t want to rush her into anything, but he badly wanted to taste her again.
"Breakfast sounds nice, as long as you let me buy. I wanted to thank you for all the help this week."
"Is that why you were coming over? Just to say thanks?"
Peering up at him through her lashes, she shook her head. "Not just. There were…other reasons. After all, I promised to sit for a painting, unless you were kidding about that."
"I never joke about my art," he said in an exaggerated tone of self-importance. It had the desired effect of making her laugh.
"Well, then. I suppose something like that would take several sittings. We might have to spend, I don’t know, hours together. Days, maybe."
How would she feel about years? Jack blinked, realizing it was the first thought he’d had about the long-term future since Amy had left. It panicked him a little, the acknowledgement that he was falling for Risa. The realization that he could be hurt again. He was glad when she spoke, interrupting his thoughts.
"So, anywhere in particular you’d like to eat?"
"Nope, I’m not picky." Anywhere Risa was sounded good to him.
It had been such a perfect day that Risa had to remind herself she didn’t believe in fairy-tales. Sitting in the sunlight that spilled through Jack’s balcony door while he sketched her in preparation for a later portrait, she’d talked to him about her job, her mother, her favorite movies, her weird idiosyncrasies she normally didn’t share with anyone but Janine. She couldn’t decide which was better—the hours of easy conversation they’d shared, or just staring at him, watching the way he looked when he was concentrating, being able to stare unchecked at his eyes, the tiny indention of a not-quite dimple next to that full mouth.
She could admit to herself now that she’d occasionally regarded her mother’s romantic decisions with a kind of gentle scorn. Though she’d adored her mother, Risa had vowed to make more logical choices. It had been simple to say, since she’d never known what falling in love felt like. Now, it was easier to understand Maggie’s feelings, the pull of a man who made you feel this special—not that this was love already! Was it?
"Risa?" Jack set aside the sketch pad he’d held. "Everything all right? You went pale all of the sudden."
"I…I think I should go." She stood. "I really got behind on work this week, and I should take care of some things before returning to the office tomorrow."
He stood in her way, arms crossed over his chest. "You’re scared."
"You have a very expressive face. Is it because of us?" He moved closer, pulling her into a loose embrace. He’d kissed her earlier, when they’d come back to his apartment, and while it had been thrilling, she’d been relieved he hadn’t pushed for more. "I thought things were going perfectly."
"Exactly. And that’s what terrifies me." She didn’t bother to deny it. "I told you about my mother’s history."
"Her mistakes aren’t yours, Risa."
"No, I make my own. You saw how my engagement crashed and burned in record time. I just need to think things through. You’ve already been through so much with the divorce and…everything, the last thing I want is to add to any pain."
He narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean, ‘and everything?’"
"Nothing. Just, one of your sisters mentioned—"
"That I can’t have kids?" He swore. "They had no right to tell you that."
"I know. That’s why I wasn’t going to mention it. If it helps, I don’t think she meant to. Jack, I’m so sorry."
"I don’t want your pity." His arms dropped away from her. "I’m fine with it."
She snorted. "That was believable."
"Well, what did you want me to say, ‘poor me?’ I’ve accepted my role as Uncle Jack."
"What do you mean accepted your role? Don’t you want kids?" Just because he was single now didn’t mean he always would be, or that he didn’t have options.
He shot her a dark glare. "I can’t see how it’s any of my neighbor’s business, but yeah, I wanted kids. Which was why we—my wife and I—filed for adoption. Instead of sticking it out through the process, though, she decided she’d rather have her own children, with someone who wasn’t defective and could give them to her."
Risa winced at being downgraded to nothing more than a neighbor, winced again when he said defective. "Jack, it was her loss."
"Somehow, it didn’t feel that way when I had to withdraw the application for the baby we’d already seen pictures of, or when I had to move out of my home, one we’d rebuilt together. If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to be alone now. You’re not the only one who has work to get done before Monday."
Her feet were like lead weights she could barely move toward the door, but how could she argue her way into staying when she’d been the one who said she needed to leave? Truthfully, she did have lots of work to do. But, as important as Perfect Placement had always been to her, there was a new person in her life who meant more.